Keith Crawford asks:

Would it be ethical to have some sort of simple test for voters (competency based) to encourage those elected to raise their game. I'm thinking of the current US President. I live in New Zealand but am originally from Northern Ireland and have never had a leader I could get behind until now.

Christopher Cowley responds, highlighting why such a test would have to be very easy for it to be fair, and why it may make many lose touch with politics and be a system open for abuse without necessarily fixing the problem.

Even in normal times, it is easy to be dismayed by some national leaders and impressed by others. But a crisis seems to bring out the worst or the best in these leaders, and stretches the gap between them. Even though ordinary citizens are unable to see a lot of the business of government, the gap between Trump’s and Ardern’s public performances is enormous.

The idea of a voter competency test is the subject of a long-standing debate in democratic theory, and the election of another populist leader always brings the debate to wider interest. The idea is simple: if someone wants to drive a car, they need to pass a theoretical test about the rules of the road (as well as a practical test). The theoretical test is relatively easy, and the vast majority of people can pass it if they prepare for it properly. And the justification for the theoretical test is clear: it makes the roads safer for everyone. If someone repeatedly fails either component of the driving test, then so be it; no one has a right to drive.

A voter competency test could also be designed to be relatively easy, so that the vast majority of adult citizens could pass it with only a little preparation, and by reading recent newspapers. The content might involve general information about the political system and about basic economics, as well as specific information about the policies of the competing parties. The test would have to be careful not to guide applicants toward any specific party or policy, or toward the right or left of the political spectrum. (There is a question about how and how much to present the uglier policies of radical parties.)

A major difference between voting and driving is that, as large a part of your life as access to cars may be, voting is our main form of political enfranchisement: the way we have our interests represented in politics. It may be an inconvenience if I’m not allowed to drive, but if I’m not allowed to vote, then I am left out in the cold when it comes to governing my country, and will always be subject to the decisions of others without being able to have a say myself.

So, although the test would be accessible to everybody, and easy for everybody to prepare for in principle, it’s almost certain that for instance lower-income groups and other already-marginalised groups might be impeded in their political engagement. This is exactly what happened in the United States in the years leading up to the Voters Rights Act in 1965. Several states had such tests, and they were captured by powerful political interests, and were used to disenfranchise large groups of the population.

Of course, there remains a question of whether a voter competence test would have prevented Trump. First, a lot of people voted for his party and its policy priorities rather than for him. Second, Trump was hiding very much. All his faults were clearly on display in the news, and yet he still got in. There is a lot more that goes into who wins a vote than who does the voting, and things like how the electoral system works, power struggles inside of parties, coalitions between parties, and the influence of powerful interests outside of the parties all play a role. So, trying to fix bad leadership by fixing the voters may very well be aiming at the wrong problem.

Ideally, of course, there should be no need for a voter competency test if the education system includes proper citizenship education as part of the compulsory national school curriculum. This would ensure that all people of the population are reached fairly. There is a real question about whether the election of Trump is evidence of the failure of the American citizenship curriculum, or whether there were too many other factors in his favour. This is part of a larger debate. 

Christopher Cowley

Christopher Cowley

Associate Dean of the College of Social Sciences & Law

+353 1 716 8228